Address for 7 May

Easter 4 2017 Year A

Acts 2 42-47

John 10 1-10

I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.

Wonderful.  Shall we spend the next 10 minutes enjoying this promise?

No – because there is also this challenge All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.

For me, that’s one of the most guilt inducing verses in the Bible. As you all know, I often preach about my firm belief that everything we have – everything – comes from God, that we are stewards and not owners, that we are called to live generously towards God and one another. It was at the root of what I tried to say last week at the APCM in quite a heated discussion about the parish’s outward giving from its income. But despite this, what Luke tells us in Acts about the way those earliest Christians lived is very different from the way that I live, the way that even the most committed and generous amongst us choose to use our possessions and our wealth for the general good. We’ll look at why that is in a moment – for now, ask yourself how these verses makes you feel.

All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds* to all, as any had need.

I hope you felt some discomfort during that silence. I’m quite sure that every one of us could do more to use what we have to meet the needs of others. I know I could – and I could do it without any really serious impact on my lifestyle and planning for the future…. (car, cats) so I’m offering you these thoughts not from a great height, not from any sense of particular virtue, but as I said at the beginning, recognising the sense of inadequacy, of guilt, that these verses induce in me.

One thing you might have been thinking is: well, that was all very well for the very earliest Christians, swept up in the power of the Spirit at Pentecost and, crucially, expecting Jesus to return at any time. And although there were more than three thousand of them, and the numbers were growing from that very first day, it was at that stage still manageable, local, like a large village within the teeming city that was Jerusalem. Inevitably, as the numbers grew practical difficulties emerged – we see in Acts 6 that disputes break out between Greek Christians and Jewish Christians about the way their widows are treated, and the beginnings of a bureaucracy appears with the appointment of 7 deacons, to allow the apostles to concentrate on teaching….. But does this get us off the hook of being challenged by the attitude of those early Christians?

Let’s take a step back and look at the wider perspective. Luke tells us:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

These four elements of Christian life are often described as the four marks of the church. They are just as essential today as they were then.

  • Teaching, lifelong Christian learning, to help us resist the pressures of an inherently selfish culture.
  • Fellowship – a bit of a jargon word – a particular kind of friendship and mutual support, rooted in the community of shared faith
  • The breaking of the bread: worshipping together and returning all the time to our belief that Jesus’ death and resurrection are the centre of our lives: of everything….
  • Prayer – communally and individually, staying close to God and living in the knowledge that we have a place in heaven as in earth….

teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers.

How exciting it must have been to be part of this – to have this shining new faith in Jesus, to recognise in him all the qualities of love and care and relationship that are implicit in the good shepherd imagery of today’s gospel, to be discovering day by day more about him and how he fulfilled all the Jewish prophecies. Is it any less exciting today? for you?

It was in this context of excitement and discovery that the early church simply continued the practice begun by Jesus and his disciples in their journeyings – of having a common purse, contributed to by different people as they could, but available to the whole group because they were living as a single family. That was their understanding of who they were – they were family, brothers and sisters…. and now the family was much bigger, and growing, but still united by baptism, teaching, fellowship, prayer – and in the breaking of bread, the shared meal of the new church. And so

All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds* to all, as any had need.

We’ve already seen that as the fellowship grew it became less easy… administration and rules were needed, disputes arose and needed resolution processes. In the later New Testament we see the apostles seeking ways of bringing cohesion and unity to the church as it grows – cohesion of doctrine but also of practice, of what it means to live the Christian faith.

We are the inheritors of that work…. we are the direct descendants of those 3000 Christians full of excitement and fire at Pentecost: of the richer brothers and sisters who sold their possessions to meet the needs of the poorer ones, seeing it not as sacrifice but as blessing and joy: and of those poorer brothers and sisters who received it as blessing and joy. We are also the descendants of the discontented Christians who complained of unfairness in the distribution: of the Christians in Philippi 20 or 30 years later who gave generously to support the now struggling church in Jerusalem…. and of the much later monastic tradition of hospitality and care for the poor and the sick…. and of the great Christian charitable institutions that followed them….. right up to the present day, when one of the Bishop’s goals for our diocese is this:

Encouraging generous giving: For every parish to encourage an increasing number of worshipping Christians to commit to regular, proportional and sacrificial giving.

Recognising that Christian stewardship is one of the most basic expressions of the wider issue of Christian discipleship, this goal commits us to increasing the number of planned givers, and the level of their giving, so as to release considerably greater financial resources for God’s mission locally and across the world (rpt)

It’s definitely the nature of humanity that we need institutions, rules, structures and so it was inevitable that the beautiful, personal small scale openhandedness of the early church would develop as it did into something like the institutions and structures we know today – churches and charities, each existing for the good of others not for ourselves. And it is our calling as Christians to support them – because if we don’t, no-one will – because God calls us to do this thing called living generously…. giving generously is part of it, but it means putting God at the centre of all our decision making, applying that principle that David gave us – all things come from you, and of your own do we give you….  So….

44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds* to all, as any had need.

I invited you earlier to allow yourself to experience the discomfort, guilt even, that I believe those verses must cause all of us here.  What I’d like you to take away this morning is a commitment to consider them in the context of their time and ask yourself some questions.

  • How is God calling you to live out the principle of generous living in your own life, in our time and place? How can we respond as a parish to the Bishop’s call?
  • How far do teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers take central place in your life?
  • And flowing from that: how can you allow Jesus to make real in your life his promise: I am come that they may have life and have it abundantly…?

 

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